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  • Pannawat Sermsuk



With the prevailing ideal of efficiency came various iterations of dining facilities. These design variations were the embodiment of an ever-accelerating pace of mechanical invention to accommodate modern demands.

THE LAZY SUSAN Widely recognised as the spinning platter that rests atop the table, the Lazy Susan assists in distributing food during mealtimes. Much to one’s astonishment, the turntable which was deeply associated with the modern Chinese is not of a Chinese origin. Of the many tales, the Lazy Susan is an invention owe to the after-effect of the Industrial Revolution when household servants were in shortage.

LAZY SUSAN, Dining out: a global history of restaurants, Rawson and Shore

In the absence of maids or footmen to deliver food and condiments, historians believe the Lazy Susan was presented as a solution to the English households. The Lazy Susan’s purport of replacing domestic waiters was the root cause of its initial so-called name, the ‘dumb-waiter’. Yet without evidence to support the assertion, the Lazy Susan is also an American-claimed invention engineered by the 3rd president Thomas Jefferson for his sluggish daughter. Though its origin remains a mystery, the improvement model was patent to Elisabeth Howell in 1891 as the ‘self-waiting table’.

Nonetheless, the Lazy Susan made its debut again in the 1950s and 60s. Due to the influx of Chinese immigrants, the West saw an increase in the Chinese communities. The newcomers mostly went into the restaurant business.32 Yet these early restaurants held a reputation for being dingy and cramped with small tables arranged back-to-back. The Lazy Susan was seen as a plausible solution: to host a larger group of diners at a table and for each person to access the shared dishes with ease. The revolving table became the key element toward a refined and spacious makeover. Henceforth, the Lazy Susan has been widely recognised across the globe as part of the Chinese dining experience and becomes ‘the classic centrepiece of Chinese restaurants’.

THE AUTOMAT Much akin to the Lazy Susan, the automating restaurant was driven primarily by the desire to accommodate the lack or the elimination of waiters. In 1902, the ‘new method of lunching’ began at the Horn & Hardart’s ‘Automat Lunch Room’.34 The Automat promised diners an efficient and affordable dining experience in a communal atmosphere.’35 Gigantic vending machines lined the walls, making up the interior perimeter. Row upon row of windowed compartments filled the machine’s façade, each housed different menu item. The liberty for diners to browse their dishes before self-serving themselves was well-received among the growing sanitation movement.


Albeit being considered an American phenomenon, an automated restaurant concept was adapted from successful 1895 German food-vending establishment ‘Quisisana’. Yet the Automat was not fully automated. Behind the scenes were the invisible kitchen workers, whose roles were to refill the empty compartment and keep up with the demand. The Automat was a marvel of speed and efficiency. With limited lunchtime, the Automat’s assembly line eatery resonated with the fast-paced New Yorker and pioneered the American fast-food era.


Dorothee Schaab-Hanke, ‘The Capital Behind the Capital: Life in Kaifeng as Reflected in the “Duchengjisheng”’, Harrassowitz Verlag, Oriens Extremus, 50 (2011)


Dave Roos, ‘When Did People Start Eating in Restaurants?’, History, 2020

The Automat held much economic appeal for the American working-class. Preceding the Automat, the American culinary scene was dominated by elite diners catered for the wealthy population. The Automat, in contrast, was simple and democratic. However, the Automat’s popularity began to fade in the 1970s. The Fiscal Crisis resulted in the price increased, and the Automat’s operation was longer deemed efficient or practical. The establishment was soon out-competed by the rise of the fast-food franchise. The Automat was permanently closed in 1991.

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